Some people look out from Deer Island south of the eastern edge of Biloxi and see serenity. Others see opportunity.
The question is, are those two visions mutually exclusive? The Department of Marine Resources would like to start an oyster aquaculture farm in the Mississippi Sound — south of the island — to teach people how to nurture “boutique” oysters and sell the highly desirable and expensive oysters to Coast restaurants.
As the oysters grow, they feed by filtering the Mississippi Sound water, removing pollutants along with the nutrients they need. An oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water, so a farm full of them could improve the water quality.
So far, so good, say supporters and critics alike.
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The opponents say they think the 85-acre farm is a great idea. They just don’t like the location.
The DMR had a hearing Sept. 5 on its application to the state for a Coast wetlands permit and water quality certification. Most of those who spoke didn’t like the location of the farm, primarily, they said, because it encroaches on the Deer Island Coastal Preserve.
“We will have some pilings in the area,” said Jason Rider, DMR oyster extension agent. “The pilings are capped at 4 feet above mean high water, which is the same height as Katrina Key.”
That key is an artificial fishing reef built with concrete from the old Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge and other waste concrete. It is not visible from the north side of the island nor U.S.90.
Farm would be in preserve
Opponents would rather they not mess with the view south of the island either.
“The problem is choosing that location — because of its scenic quality as well as the fact it’s a Coastal Preserve,” said Melissa Johnson of Ocean Springs, who spoke at the hearing. “And Mississippi has such a dubious history when it comes to yielding to economic and commercial concerns as opposed to the commonweal.
“This would be the thin wedge, this would be the thing that would start degrading how we treat the land.”
Johnson visits the island often as part of Habitat Stewards, a group that does “citizen science” in conjunction with DMR. She also paddles over in her kayak, sometimes with her family.
“Here you are, literally within a short distance from the Kuhn Street pier and you can paddle over and be on an island by yourself,” she said. “I think it takes less than 15 minutes.
“It’s kind of a poor-man’s barrier island. Just like people with bigger boats go out to Horn Island, people with smaller boats still enjoy it right here.”
Others have failed
Others have tried to develop the island — all but 17 of its 400 acres are owned by the state. The state even dreamed of having a ferry from Biloxi to the island. A pier was built but no commercial interests came up with a boat or a plan to navigate the relatively shallow waters. In 2011, a private developer wanted to build a restaurant and condos but neither has materialized.
Years ago, there was an amusement park and in the 1980s, condos. Hurricanes wiped out both of them.
DMR says it has been trying to allay such concerns over aesthetics, reducing the height of the pilings for the farm and creating lanes for small boats within the farm.
“We are making lanes within the farm,” Rider said. “We have three lanes, each 100 feet wide. You’ll have plenty of space between the island and the farm.”
The farm likely will attract fish, enhancing the area for recreational fishermen, DMR said. RESTORE funding, a federal portion of the BP oil spill settlement, will pay for training for farming for any resident of the six lower counties who wants to try their hand at a 1- to 5-acre farm, Rider said, adding that it would be hard to estimate how much money an oyster farmer would need to start farming after that. DMR would help the farmer the first year.
The next step
But first, the Commission on Marine Resources would have to approve the DMR’s request to change the Coastal Wetlands Use Plan. That probably wouldn’t happen until the October meeting, which means there could be more discussion of Deer Island in the public comments section of Tuesday’s CMR meeting in Biloxi.
“Whether or not it is legal, those Coastal Preserve properties have been set aside and protected for a reason,” said Janet Wright of Ocean Springs, also part of the group that monitors the marsh restoration. “The state recognizes they are valuable to the public. Carving them up for some other purpose sets a bad precedent.”
DMR spokeswoman Melissa Scallan said the agency doesn’t believe the plan would violate rules governing Coast Preserves. Although the deed to part of the island the state owns prohibits commercial development, she said the agency believes the deed is talking about the land, not the water.
“We believe because the deed specifically talks about Deer Island, that means on the island,” she said.
She said just as the island is accessible to people who don’t have big boats, people of limited means would be able to farm oysters.
“One of the reasons this particular water was chosen, it would allow people who want to do this, take the class and try their hand at growing oysters, it is shallow enough they could walk along there. If you move it too much further out, then they’d have to have a boat.”